Britain’s Prince Charles saluted as the band played God Save the Queen. Thousands at the Rufaro soccer stadium in Salisbury, Rhodesia cheered when the Union flag was lowered on one pole and the red, green, black and gold flag of Zimbabwe raised on another.
Legend has it that the first official words spoken in the new nation were: “Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers.”
The Jamaican reggae star performed a song, Zimbabwe, watched by the new prime minister, Robert Mugabe. A power cut plunged the celebrations into darkness and tear gas was used to subdue panic in the crowd. But no one, that day, wanted to read the runes.
Few could have guessed that last weekend, when the country marked 30 years of independence, it would also be forced to salute 30 years of Mugabe’s iron rule. Nor could they have imagined they would be asking how this eloquent freedom fighter, once lauded by the West and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, turned into one of Africa’s most reviled tyrants.
Today there are many Zimbabweans who believe that, far from being a good man corrupted by power, Mugabe’s ruthless streak was forged long ago in the bitter liberation struggle, during which he spent 10 years in jail. Reflecting on three decades of bloodshed, economic ruin and erosion of civil liberties, they see little to celebrate this weekend in the eclipse of what was once Africa’s greatest hope.
On April 18, 1980, the renegade colony of Rhodesia gave way to the new Zimbabwe, ending a seven-year war that left 27,000 dead. Mugabe, a guerrilla fighter hated by Ian Smith’s white-minority regime, announced a policy of reconciliation and invited whites to help rebuild the country.
Among those present that day was Simba Makoni, who served in Mugabe’s first government.
“What struck me was the joviality of the people,” he told this reporter during a rare interview in Harare. “We’d just come out of a very hard war situation. There was still a lot of tension. The blacks were celebrating, the whites were obviously in mourning a little. So it was quite a mixture of feelings, but I think the dominant sentiment was one of joviality, excitement, hope and high expectations.”
Mugabe is said to have few friends. Makoni, one of his few intellectual equals, may have come as close as anyone. He toured Europe with Mugabe in the late 1970s, culminating in the peace talks at Lancaster House in London.
“I clearly regarded him as a hero, someone to look up to,” Makoni, 60, recalled. “I had a sense of what kind of a character he was. Definitely the hero, definitely the people’s leader, very committed and at that time genuine about the welfare of the people. ‘We must do the wishes of the people.’”
“Some of us regarded him even in the first nine, 12 months of independence as being too democratic, allowing people too much sway and too much discussion,” he added. “We were in a hurry to rectify the wrongs and he wanted debate, he wanted exhaustion of issues. Quite a different character from the Mugabe of today, regrettably.”
Makoni was not alone in his admiration for the former guerrilla leader, whose men were accused of atrocities during the war against Rhodesia. Britain, the former colonial power, wanted Mugabe to succeed and seemed prepared to turn a blind eye to his failings. Dumiso Dabengwa fought for the armed liberation movement Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo, which competed and sometimes clashed with Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).
At Lancaster House they agreed to join forces and take part in the 1980 elections as one party, but Mugabe reneged on the agreement.
“Behind ZAPU’s back, they registered ZANU-PF as the party that would contest the elections,” Dabengwa, 70, said. “This was against the spirit of the unity agreement we had pushed for. I lost some of the respect I had for Mugabe as an honest and reliable leader.”
The 1980 election, he added, was a blueprint for the crude but effective tactics that would later be used against Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
“From the fact they declared certain portions of the country no-go areas under their control, it was very clear they did not want democratic elections to take place,” Debengwa said. “But the British thought that was still democratic so they declared the elections free and fair, contrary to what they say today when, after such incidents, they declare the elections absolutely not free and fair. You can see the contradiction. It was violence and intimidation.”
Dabengwa would later spend almost five years behind bars after being charged with treason. He is now interim chairman of ZAPU.
“It was not until the ‘90s that the British changed their mind about Mugabe, when they thought he had done a turnaround on the assurances he had given them on the land issue,” he added. “Then he became a bad boy.”
David Coltart, a white Zimbabwean who is now education minister, was studying abroad in Cape Town at the time of independence. His “Focus On Zimbabwe” events there were banned by South Africa’s apartheid government. When Mugabe learned of this in 1981, he sent Coltart a telegram of support encouraging him to come home.
Coltart returned to Zimbabwe in December 1982.
“I was a very keen supporter of Robert Mugabe and it took quite a long time for that sentiment to evaporate,” he said. “It started with the Gukurahundi.”
Gukurahundi means “the rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains.” It is also the name given to ethnic cleansing in the province of Matabeleland.
Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade crushed an armed rebellion by fighters loyal to Nkomo, leader of the minority Ndebele tribe. An estimated 20,000 people died. Coltart, who had just begun working as a human rights lawyer in the province, did not want to believe it.
“I can remember arguing with friends that yes, these were terrible things happening, but these must be renegade elements within the army and Robert Mugabe couldn’t possibly know what was going on,” he said. “It took quite a long time for me to realize that in fact he did know what was going on.”
It was only a decade later, when he began work on a report documenting the killings, that Coltart realized that as early as August 1980, Mugabe had traveled to North Korea and sought Kim Il-sung’s help in developing a unit capable of crushing internal dissent. Among the victims was the family of Max Mkandla, 53, who was away from home when the soldiers came.
“They took my brother as [an] example and beat him up,” he said. “They would take people to certain bases for the whole night. That is where my father was killed. He was shot at and then finally his brother was forced to take an axe and chop off his head.”
“I am quite sure that even as Gukurahundi was taking place, there was a lot of pain in Robert Mugabe’s heart, if I think back to conversations we had at the time,” Simba Makoni said. “But then again, it could have been crocodile tears.”
The economy grew in the early 1980s as agriculture thrived and Mugabe built clinics and schools that made Zimbabwe one of the healthiest and most literate countries in Africa. It was not to last.
The downturn began in 1997, when Mugabe gave in to pressure from war veterans waging violent protests for pensions.
Meanwhile, civic groups and unions began organizing what would become the MDC — the country’s first viable opposition party. It was partly bankrolled by white farmers, however, which allowed Mugabe to paint them as counter-revolutionaries and whip up militancy.
He launched a land reform program in 2000.
It was ostensibly to correct the colonialist legacy by giving white-owned farms to landless black people. Many saw it as a concerted attempt to wipe out a million MDC votes.
White farmers were brutally evicted, replaced by ZANU-PF cronies or black Zimbabweans who lacked the skills and capital to farm.
The ensuing chaos undermined the economy, which shrank to half the size it had been in 1980. The Zimbabwean dollar went into free-fall. The one-time food exporter became dependent on foreign aid. Hyperinflation set world records. Schools and hospitals crumbled, cholera broke out and life expectancy dropped from 61 to 45. An estimated three million people fled to neighboring South Africa.
In the 2008 election, Mugabe refused to go quietly. The MDC claims that 253 people died in political violence. Lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders still face harassment and arrest.
Makoni, now interim president of the Mavambo Kusile Dawn party, was finance minister from 2000 to 2002. Did the president ever understand the human cost of his actions?
“I would say yes, he knows, but he will be very selective about what he acknowledges he knows and doesn’t know,” Makoni replied. “Many times it’s very convenient to suggest that ‘I don’t know’ because it’s uncomfortable to live with the fact if you acknowledge it.”
Mugabe, said to wake at 4am for exercise and to enjoy cricket, is often described as charming and charismatic, with the manners and formal dress code of a Victorian Englishman.
He constantly demonizes Britain but apparently loves the royal family, though he was stripped of his honorary knighthood in 2008.
The death in 1992 of his wife, Sally, a compassionate influence, is blamed by Makoni for a change in his character.
Makoni found him to be a family man.
“I remember very clearly the last conversation I had with him, talking about his daughter Bona — how she hadn’t done so well in school, how she was crying herself out, how she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do,” he said. “So there was quite a personable aspect to him, a kind of very caring father figure, which belies all the cruelty, the harshness and the despotism.”
Whereas former South African president Nelson Mandela’s statue now stands in Parliament Square in London, Mugabe has destroyed his legacy in the eyes of the world.
Unlike Mandela, who stepped down after one term, Mugabe seems intent on clinging on until his dying day. Last year he was forced to join a unity government with the MDC but remains president and, in many eyes, as powerful and menacing as ever.
“After tasting so much power, I don’t think he’s about to give it away,” Dabengwa said. “It’s only when the heavens call him he will surrender.”
A hard core of his ZANU-PF supporters appears to be in denial that such a day will ever come.
“Yes, the western world considers him a dictator, a non-democratic leader,” said George Mlala, political commissar for the War Veterans Association in Bulawayo Province. “That is their opinion, they are entitled to their opinion — they have never done anything better in terms of elections. They have said Mugabe has been in power for too long. That is not correct.”
Others long for the day he will be gone, though how ZANU-PF — and the military — will respond to such a trauma is a great unknown.
At 30 years, this young country has never known independence from Robert Mugabe.
Makoni warned against blaming its plight entirely on one person.
“Mugabe hasn’t done these things alone,” he said. “I place more responsibility for the condition of our country on the people around Robert Mugabe than on Mugabe himself. If the rest of us — and I include myself in this — had put our foot down and said, ‘President, we must do land reform but not this way, we must do empowerment of the people of Zimbabwe but not this way,’ I don’t think that singlehandedly Mugabe would have done it.”
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